More than a family album, “Return to Cameroun” also places my maternal family’s legacy in the context of American missionary history. It looks back to a time when fraternal workers went by the thousands to India, China, Africa and the Middle East – when a missionary’s life had the same appeal for idealistic young men and women as the Peace Corps several decades later.
The debate over missionary ethics is complex and volatile. I didn’t want to gloss over the issues of cultural imperialism and the imposition of Western culture and religion on African communities. It was important to me to acknowledge the tragic mistakes of many missionaries – and at the same time illustrate the great work of other missionaries. This was the central conundrum in creating “Return to Cameroun.” Ultimately, I couldn’t let the ethical debate dominate or absorb my movie, given that my real purpose was telling a story of family and connection.
The Presbyterian Church sent its first missionary, Rev. John B. Pinney, to Liberia in 1833 and continued to send more workers – despite the fact that life expectancy in the mission field was one to two years. At one time, the west coast of Africa was often called “the white man’s grave.”
By the early 20th century, medicine had improved and sudden death from malaria, black water fever and dysentery was less common. From 1880 to 1930, the peak years for the movement, missionaries were recruited on college campuses by the nondenominational Student Volunteer Movement.